Ayutthaya was once the majestic and imposing capital of Siam. Located on a manmade island on the Chao Phraya River upstream from where Bangkok is today, it was at the pinnacle of its influence and wealth in the region during the 17th and 18th centuries when foreigners first arrived in Siam.
Today its ruins are a popular day trip or overnight river cruise from Bangkok. The Ayutthaya court at the time was highly regarded even in Europe, with diplomatic relations extending to the French court and Louis XIV.
By the 17th century, Ayutthaya had become the cultural and financial hub of Southeast Asia, ruling over an empire that stretched from Malaysia to China and including parts of eastern Burma and almost all of present-day Laos and Cambodia.
Siam’s capital city for 417 years, Ayutthaya is a testament to the ingenuity and decadence of King U-Thong (otherwise known as Ramathibodi I). Founded in 1350, the city grew at an amazing rate, largely due to the incredible trade opportunities offered in this fertile basin of the Chao Phraya River.
The rich heritage that remains at Ayutthaya is mostly found within the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park. This city island, formed by an ox-bow and manmade canal in the river, is where many of the ruins are concentrated, but the entire original site encompassed a much larger area, which is today occupied by the modern city.
There is a stunning blend of Khmer (Cambodian) architecture dating from the founding of this capital in the 14th century. It is characteristically comprised of constructions of brick, laterite and sandstone; making the structures incredibly durable. They are mixed seamlessly with the elegant and symmetrical designs of the Sukhothai influence.
There are many temple and palace ruins to visit but the pick of them includes Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which you will recognised from its three aligned chedis seen on many postcards. It is sited among the ruins of the largest temple complex and palace, dating from the 14th century.
Wat Phra Mahathat was another important structure almost entirely razed by invading Burmese, but is worth visiting for its Khmer Phrang (tower).
Wat Phanan Choeng is southwest of the main ruins precinct and charmingly reached by boat; it predates the main Ayutthaya kingdom and has a much revered Buddha inside. Wat Na Phramen is reached by crossing a bridge from the old Royal palace grounds and managed to escape destruction, so it remains one of Ayutthaya’s best preserved examples and contains some prestigious Buddhas.
Perhaps the most photogenic is Wat Chai Wattanaram, which sits on the river banks and offers a fantastic impression with its multiple chedis. Usually it’s approached from the water as part of a river tour circumnavigating the island. Other rewarding visits include the National Museum and Ayutthaya Historic Study Centre, which offers a good initial impression with its scale models of ancient Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya in historic perspective
Over the centuries, the city went through an incredible period of prosperity, with more and more palaces and temples being built. Merchants came from across the globe to trade at the principal city of Siam. There were five dynasties of Thai kings that inhabited this city, among them 33 kings ruled Ayutthaya.
The death of King Ramathibodi II in 1529 heralded the start of a turbulent time for the city, when war began with the Burmese. After that conflict there came many more battles, notably in 1569 when the Burmese first invaded the city. In this instance the Thai king managed to repel the invaders and peace reigned in the city for a further 118 years. It was the return of the Burmese army in 1765 that lead to its defeat and collapse two years later, with the razing and abandonment of the city in favour of a new capital and dynasty in the present day Bangkok area.
In times of peace the city thrived, whether in the political and diplomatic arena, or as the cultural centre of this diverse and exotic Kingdom. This is seen in the abundance of temples – over 400 of them – and the construction of three spectacular palaces. There’s even a Jesuit church, plenty of open parkland with pretty ponds, and of course the river, to add to the site’s present attraction.
Ayutthaya has many sections that seem to replicate the grandness and opulence of Angkor Wat. The city was essentially destroyed in 1767 by the Burmese army, who sacked the city and destroyed many of its finest temples. However, it has proved to continue to draw crowds of visitors every year and was finally designated as a historical park in its own right in 1976, and later made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.
Modern Ayutthaya is a typical Thai city that has grown up around its historical surroundings, complete with busy roads, unsightly overhead cables, noodle carts everywhere and plenty of billboards for mobile phones and Honda motorbikes. Nonetheless, the historic island has been spared much of this with its grand avenues, grid of canals, large swathes of public park and low-rise atmosphere. It can be a pleasant place to base yourself for a couple of days and has more than enough average hotels and guesthouses.
Bang Pa-in Palace
Another site in the area which draws the crowds is the much newer Bang Pa In Palace, 20kms to the south of Ayutthaya. It boasts a number of architectural styles, some of which from European influence. Built as a summer retreat by King Rama V in the late 19th century, it has some pretty lakes, one with a fairytale-type pavilion on an island within, as well as a colourful Chinese styled palace – Wehart Chamrun and the lighthouse-inspired building known as Withun Thatsana.
Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, across the river, looks more like a church than a temple. A sad story accompanies the river, for it was here that one of the King’s consorts drowned after her boat capsized and onlookers were too afraid to break a rule of touching royal consorts to come to her aid.